Language learning is hard so, give your kids a few things

My 10 year old students made this wlcome mat reflecting their languages for this year's PYP exhibition.

My 10 year old students made this wlcome mat reflecting their languages for this year’s PYP exhibition.

“I just wish everyone in the world spoke Danish; it would be easier.” Insert any language there and you can sympathize with the frustration my daughter felt in learning another language.  The frustration is part of  language learning and if you put your kids in an environment where there are surrounded by the target language for hours a day, they will pick it up faster, but you have to be prepared to give them a few things.

1) Make your home a haven for their native language.  Let them watch TV in their native language and read to them in their native language.   They often need a chance to mentally rest and know that they will be understood.  They also need a STRONG first language.  I’ve met many kids who speak three or more languages but are not actually fluent in any of them.  Help them gain vocabulary, grammar and sentence fluency naturally in their native language.  This knowledge will be the base that they use for all other languages.

2) Their personality in the new language will be different, at least in the beginning.  They might be significantly quieter, angrier, more frustrated, or more playful.  One child I taught abandoned all language when she entered the English language environment.  She just used physical signs and made up sounds to speak to the other students.  Soon the other kids would respond with made up words as well.  We had to actively encourage the class to use English with her so she could keep hearing the sounds of the language.  This from a student who was very vocal and expressive in their native language!

3) Keep talking to them about how they feel and listen to their frustrations.  Little people usually let us know when they need a break from a language or activity. We just have to be ready to respond to them.  Kids learn the best when they think something is fun and necessary; if it has become a chore you will be fighting an uphill battle to make learning happen.  In the times that they don’t want to speak a target language, ask them why.  There are quite often big things that they want to talk about.  Listen and act accordingly, you may need to take a week off of language learning but they will come back much more willing to learn.  My own kiddos have proven this one many times.

My husband and kids being silly in English.

My husband and kids being silly in English.

4) Encourage them to feel free to be silly in the new language.  Many kids (and adults) do not want to use their new language until they are fluent because they know they will make mistakes.  This is a hurdle that has to be overcome.  They have to use the language and the more they do, the quicker it will come.  In my home and classroom, we pretend the whole family or class are robots/aliens/pirates and then no one is worried if they can’t make a full sentence or their sentence is missing words…. because robots/aliens/pirates always make mistakes.  If a child is uncomfortable using a language, making a safe play environment can do wonders in helping them become a language risk-taker.

5) Let them know some of the feelings they will probably feel before they start.  Full language immersion is always hard.  It is hard as an adult and it is hard as a kid.  Whoever is encountering the language has to brace themselves to not be understood, to have trouble expressing their needs, and in a global way not be able to do the same things that they can in their native language.  It is much easier to deal with this if you know it is coming and that it won’t last forever.  When my own bonus-kids go to Grandma and Grandpa’s they know that they will be in a full immersion environemnt so they prep themselves by thinking of how they use can body language, what toys or games they can teach Grandma and Grandpa and what English words or phrases they really want to know.  This way if they get frustrated in the situation, they have tools to use to express themselves another way.

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